Science In Ancient India


Weaving of cotton textiles has always been one of the most important crafts of India. The muslins from Dacca were so sheer that they were known by such poetic names as "running water" or "evening dew," the latter because the fabric was so delicate that if laid on the wet grass it was scarcely visible. When embroidered, these delicate muslins had the effect of exquisite lace. Cotton textiles were often decorated with beautiful designs secured by painting on, printing with wood blocks, or dyeing, or a combination of all three. The weavers of Kashmir, using goat's wool, turned out long strips on small looms, and sewed them together into shawls so skillfully that the seams were almost invisible.

Progress in Sciences

By the beginning of the Christian era the Indians had made great progress in the sciences. For example, mathematics, which is the core of science, was highly developed by the Indians long before tile Christian era. As early as the fourth century BC the Sulva Sutras, or theories of the cords (cords being used for measurement) recorded the principles of geometry already in practice for a long time, growing out of figures and patterns indispensable to Hindu rituals.

The early Indians were noteworthy for their preoccupation with problems involving numbers. They developed the concept of zero, and the decimal system of notation, and gave names for classes of numbers mounting by powers of 10 up to the twenty-fourth place. Before the third century the Indians had already solved the problems of fractions, square and cube roots, arithmetical and geometrical progressions, simple equations, simultaneous linear equations, quadratic equations, and indeterminate equations of the second degree.

The Indians developed the sine function in computations connected with angles and with the circle. The Greeks used a trigonometry of chords, but the Indians considered the ratio of the half-chord to the radius as fundamental. Modern trigonometry rests on this foundation. The word "sine," by the way, is ultimately derived from the Sanskrit word "jiva" (bow-string). Much of the Indian knowledge of mathematics was transmitted to Europe by the Arabs.

Astronomy was a standard subject in the universities. Long before the fifth century the Indian astronomers calculated, by means of epicycles and eccentric circles, the true places of the planets in relation to their mean places. The inclination of the ecliptic to the equator was known, and the position of the heavenly bodies with reference to both were calculated. The procession of the equinoxes was known, as were the real causes of the eclipses of the sun and moon, whose motions were so well known that eclipses were calculated with great accuracy.

Medicine and surgery must have been scientifically studied over many centuries, for we read of remarkable surgical operations as early as the third century BC. By that time the establishment of hospitals for both "men and beasts" had been systematized. A hundred years earlier there were already physicians, surgeons, midwives, and army surgeons and nurses, practicing in India. Aside from a well-developed materia medica, Indian medical texts describe 120 surgical instruments and methods of operation. Anatomy was learned by dissection. Susruta and other early Indian authors on medicine were translated into Arabic.

In the systematic analysis of language, the Indians reached a much higher point than any other people of antiquity. The grammar of Panini was written before the fourth century. This treatise "is the earliest extant grammar of any language, and one of the greatest ever written," writes W. E. Clark in his Legacy of India, Panini mentions over sixty predecessors who had already arranged the sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet in an orderly, systematic form: vowels and dipthongs separated from mutes, semi-vowels and sibilants, and the sounds in each group according to gutturals, palatals, cerebrals, dentals and labials. They had analyzed words into roots, and shown how complex words grew by the addition of prefixes and suifixes. Religion and mysticism did not make Indian thought processes fuzzy; their study of language, for example, was much more objective and scientific than that of Greece or Rome.

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